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Granderson might still be MLB's top teammate

Veteran outfielder brings much to the Blue Jays, on and off the field
MLB.com @jonmorosi

The first Spring Training I covered from start to finish was in 2007. The Tigers were coming off their first American League pennant in more than two decades, my home state had fallen madly in love with baseball again, and I was a lucky 24-year-old sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press.

Curtis Granderson was the hub of that team, in ability and character. As a graceful center fielder, explosive leadoff hitter and thrilling baserunner, his on-field presence was unmistakable. He was the clubhouse's conscience, too, exuding purpose and positivity from the moment he arrived at Joker Marchant Stadium each day.

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The first Spring Training I covered from start to finish was in 2007. The Tigers were coming off their first American League pennant in more than two decades, my home state had fallen madly in love with baseball again, and I was a lucky 24-year-old sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press.

Curtis Granderson was the hub of that team, in ability and character. As a graceful center fielder, explosive leadoff hitter and thrilling baserunner, his on-field presence was unmistakable. He was the clubhouse's conscience, too, exuding purpose and positivity from the moment he arrived at Joker Marchant Stadium each day.

View Full Game Coverage

Granderson smiled a lot then, after one full season the Major Leagues. He smiles a lot now, as a 37-year-old likely to platoon in left field for the Blue Jays, his fifth team.

Granderson has played more than 200 Grapefruit League games in a pro career that began nearly 16 years ago. Yet as we spoke before he led off against the Braves one day last week, he gave no indication that he was growing weary of the grind. Granderson talked about what he's observed in his new surroundings with the Blue Jays, about wanting to pursue a graduate degree in the near future, about the philanthropic work that defines his MLB career as much as the 319 home runs and three World Series appearances.

How much longer does Granderson want to play?

"I'm not sure," he said. "Even going into this year, mentally and physically, I was ready [to play], but it was all dependent on the 30 clubs and the interest there. This offseason, there was interest, so let's continue to do it. Next year will be a similar situation.

"There's no hard date that, 'Hey, I'm done.' At the same time, I'm not like, 'I've got to play as long as I can.' Who knows what's next for me? There are so many things I want to do, and am beginning to do, and will do whenever I finally step away from the game."

At that point in the interview, I was reminded why this time of year has me under its spell. Yes, I love opportunities to meet the game's top prospects and contemplate their futures. But in Spring Training, amid all that is new, we can't forget to appreciate those -- like Granderson -- whose brilliance and relevance endures.

Video: PHI@TOR: Granderson cranks a three-run homer

Granderson maintained a .806 OPS last year against right-handed pitching, with 21 home runs. That is only part of the reason why he has a guaranteed contract while others his age do not. After I returned home from Florida last week, I searched for a copy of the feature story I'd written on Granderson in the Free Press, nine Spring Trainings ago.

"There are so many fine young men playing Major League Baseball today," the lead quotation said, "but I can think of no one who is better suited to represent our national pastime than you."

Bud Selig, then the MLB Commissioner, had written those words in a letter to Granderson, in recognition of his community work and trips around the world as an MLB ambassador.

Nearly a decade later, they're still true.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"It's what he brings to a conversation," said Blue Jays reliever John Axford, who had never played alongside Granderson until this spring. "There's all different sides and angles that he can take and add perspective to, without playing devil's advocate from one side or the other. He can formulate a perspective and work through those things.

"He's great at conversation. He speaks with passion. There's something behind it. When you have that guy [who's] energized and ready to go, that gets you going, too. He's not giving you answers. You're working toward something together. [In the end], it's like, 'All right. Good. Good conversation.' You walk away from it in a good place."

As Granderson broke into the Majors with the Tigers, Ross Atkins was an executive with the division rival-Indians. In those days, Granderson was compared frequently to Cleveland's Grady Sizemore. Both were dynamic left-handed hitters who debuted in 2004 and became All-Star center fielders around the same time.

Atkins knew Granderson as an opponent and heard numerous accounts about his extraordinary personal qualities. Entering his third season as the Blue Jays' general manager, Atkins wanted to add clubhouse leadership and a left-handed outfield bat. He found both in Granderson and signed him to a one-year, $5 million contract.

The early returns?

"Man, I can't say enough," Atkins said last week. "It's like the movie you hear so much about that it can't possibly be as good as everyone is saying it is -- and then it's even better. That typically doesn't happen.

"With Curtis Granderson, you couldn't possibly have heard anything more positive or powerful about him. It's all you've heard. Now we're finding out that the consistency of his character is even better. It doesn't seem possible -- to exceed expectations when they're so high -- but he's a remarkable human being.

"His humility and consistency, how he treats people, how that impacts people in subtle but very powerful ways -- I can only imagine, over the course of a season, what that's going to mean to our team. It's palpable, his influence and impact."

Through Granderson's journey from up-and-coming star to venerated veteran, his priorities have remained largely unchanged. He's fanatical about preparation, both mental and physical.

"He's got the same body he did as a rookie," observed Braves pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, who held the same job with the Tigers early in Granderson's career. "He looks the same. He probably weighs the same. And if your pitcher makes a mistake, he's going to hit it."

Video: DET@TOR: Granderson smacks a leadoff solo homer

Granderson's finest season was in 2007, when he became the first player in AL history with 20 or more triples, home runs and stolen bases in a single year. He smiled when I mentioned to him that -- given the game's present preoccupation with launch angle -- he was ahead of his time.

"It's interesting," Granderson said. "I was having this conversation with somebody a couple days ago. In my opinion, the thought process has always been there. The terminology has changed.

"When I was coming up, everyone would say, 'You need to drive the baseball, backspin the baseball.' That's technically 'launch angle.' In order to drive the baseball, it has to be in the air. That's launch angle, right? When you had a pitcher who was, we called it, 'sneaky,' or [had] late life, that's now spin rate. Guys were [saying], 'Man, the ball's rising a little bit.' That's spin rate. It's the same thing. The terminology has changed. ... I don't necessarily say I was ahead [of my time]. It was called something different."

In sharing his observations of 23-year-old Blue Jays outfielder Anthony Alford, Granderson pointed out that they have a common background: Each was a two-sport athlete in college. Alford played football at Southern Mississippi and Mississippi. Granderson intended to play basketball at Illinois-Chicago. (More on that in a moment.)

Video: TOR@BAL: Alford scores Davis on a double in the 5th

"He [hadn't played] baseball as long as a lot of guys -- very similar to me," Granderson said of Alford, who starred in camp before a right hamstring injury sidelined him for three to six weeks. "Once I finally made that decision that baseball was going to be my thing, which was college, that's when things started to come together. I was playing everything -- and I'm not discouraging anybody from playing everything, because I think that benefited me.

"A lot of guys I've spoken to in the big leagues played other sports for a long time. All of those different [skills] translate, to help you become the guy teams are looking for right now. You need someone with power. You need someone who can run. You need someone who's flexible to play multiple positions. You need someone who can throw. Put it all together, and hopefully you hit for average. It's hard to do that when you've only been one-dimensional for a long time."

Now the story on Granderson's college basketball career: Granderson attended UIC on a baseball scholarship and told the school's basketball coach that he wanted to play both sports as a sophomore, after focusing on academics and baseball as a freshman. He played summer baseball and basketball prior to his sophomore year, which gave him confidence that he could handle both at a Division I level.

"I had one initial workout with the basketball team, the day before official team practice," Granderson said. "That next day, I was going to baseball practice, shower, change, straight to basketball practice."

At that baseball practice, Granderson broke his right thumb sliding back into second base.

"That was it," Granderson said. "I was like, 'Well, there goes basketball. I'm here on a baseball scholarship. Let's see how that goes.'"

It's gone quite well, as measured by Granderson's professional success and the way he's used his platform to impact others.

As the son of retired public school educators in the Chicago area, Granderson has maintained education as the centerpiece of his outreach. The Grand Kids Foundation -- focused on education, fitness and nutrition among young people -- is now more than 10 years old. Granderson's Chicago Baseball and Education Academy has attracted almost 20,000 boys and girls, ages 8 to 18, to athletic and academic programs.

Video: Grand Kids Foundation celebrates 10-year anniversary

As part of the CBEA, every Chicago public high school plays at least one game at Illinois-Chicago's baseball field. The ballpark's name? Curtis Granderson Field, constructed thanks largely to a $5 million donation from its namesake.

Granderson is a UIC alumnus, having earned his bachelor's degree in business management and business marketing. He's a student there, too, in a graduate program for educational leadership -- a hint, perhaps, at Granderson's post-baseball endeavor.

Or more accurately, the first of many.

"There's so many different things," Axford said, when asked what his teammate might do next. "Based on conversations we were having recently about union stuff, you're like, 'Curtis, just go ... run ... everything. Find something and lead it.' He could pursue just about anything."

Jon Paul Morosi is a reporter for MLB.com.

Toronto Blue Jays, Curtis Granderson